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Continuing the conversation about women’s rights through stitch

Visit Ballarat

16 Feb 2021

Filed underMakers & Growers

“I’ve always had a bit of a rebellious streak, as well as an interest in politics and history.” 

That’s how local creative Jem Olsen describes the influence behind much of her work –  something you’ll come to unpack in her recent piece which has captured the rebelliousness of Ballarat’s gold rush history… 

In Solidarity (2020) by Jem Olsen. Image: Louisa West

What drew you to textiles? 
I’ve long felt fabric, yarn and stitch to be in my genes. My paternal grandmother was a dressmaker and all the women on my mother’s side of the family were able to crochet and knit. I recall receiving my first toy sewing machine when I was eight and being totally fascinated by its mechanics.  
In my early twenties I was bequeathed my great grandmother’s old Brother sewing machine and, up until last year, this was the machine I used to sew my own clothes and to stitch pieces of my artwork. I remember her sewing me a dress with that same machine when I was younger and thinking it was magic! Using that machine when I got older was in part an opportunity to be close to my nan again. 

Then, it was while travelling in the UK around 10 years ago, I became really inspired by the patterns to be seen within the surface design of everything around me. It was like a light bulb moment for me; an “oh yeah, that’s it!” moment – I want to be able to design the fabrics to then make my clothes from. 
And a few weeks after returning from that trip, I resigned from my job and applied to study a textile design course. While I’m still yet to actually make a garment using my own textile designs, I’ve become ever increasingly inspired by the possibility of textiles; of finding ways to use materials in new and innovative ways to create artwork that also has a strong sense of story behind them. 

What inspires your work? 
Over the last few years, I’ve come to see that there’s a definite theme to the works I create. It usually starts with having heard about an issue or story that I’ve had a very strong reaction to.  
The themes usually centre on issues of power and authority; or more to the point, the misuse of power by people and organisations in positions of authority. I’ve always had a bit of a rebellious streak, as well as an interest in politics and history, and so I see my textile art as a vehicle to help raise awareness of social, political and environmental issues that I think are super important. It’s a way for me to channel the anxiety, anger and sadness I feel at times, into something with purpose. 

The first pieces I created for exhibition centred on the autocratic rule of the Cambodian government over its citizens, and in 2019 I created a series of works made from reclaimed single‐use medical waste. Last year, in addition to creating my piece “In Solidarity” that I’ll talk about shortly, I finished compiling a series of collage works as a meditation on the crazy property boom of the last few decades here in Australia. So yes, given the layers of political and social undertone to my work, I definitely see myself as both an artist and activist. 

Tell us about In Solidarity (2020)? 
Where to begin… there’s so many elements to this piece. At the end of 2019, I was reading Professor Claire Wright’s The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, in which she profiles several of the women living on the goldfields leading up to and at the time of the Eureka massacre.  
I had been commissioned to produce a textiles piece by a local council and my original plan was to complete a piece in response to the Eureka flag. However, whilst reading Claire’s book, I was shocked to learn that, in contradiction to what I’d been taught in high school, there were indeed some very outspoken women living on the goldfields at that time. 

But it was the account of one woman in particular; that of Irish immigrant Catherine McLister, that held a great deal of intrigue to me. Three weeks prior to the Eureka massacre, a court hearing was held in which Catherine, a police officer’s wife, made a complaint of sexual harassment and misconduct against her husband’s boss – the town’s Police Commissioner Capt. Gordon Evans. When I first read Catherine’s statement and learned more about her story, I had a very strong emotional response to it and a strong yearning to connect with her. Catherine’s words resonated so deeply, despite the almost 170 years since she wrote them.  
In stitching her words, sometimes at the site of her former residence here in Camp Street, it provided an opportunity to connect with Catherine and to help continue the conversation about the importance of women’s rights to feel safe. 

In Solidarity (2020) by Jem Olsen. Image: Louisa West.

Through art we learn, and at times it evokes stronger feelings that what we might get having read about the same topic. Why do you think this is? 
Great question! I wonder whether with art, because you’re instantly presented with (in most cases) a whole image, it doesn’t take much for that image to connect with our other senses. Then again, maybe it’s also in an artist’s use of colour and light. According to colour theory, different colours elicit different emotional reactions in us as humans. Case in point: I was actually looking at Picasso’s The Weeping Woman” again the other day and, I think it’s in his strong use of black and darker shades of red and green within this work that leave you feeling a very immediate sense of deep grief and loss.  

Then again, I’m reflecting on this question having grown up in a very privileged western society; I would be fascinated to hear how people of BIPOC background would answer this question for sure! 

What do you hope to evoke in those who view your work? 
I really hope my work sparks a sense of curiosity for those who view them. The artworks I produce typically include multiple layers in the materials used in their construction, as well as, figuratively in their meaning and background story.

I like to encourage viewers to touch my work too as a way of enabling greater engagement and connection with the mediums used, as well as the ideas behind the works.
I read somewhere recently that our sense of touch produces the fastest connection to memory, which may explain why physical connection to others is so important for people living with dementia and memory loss.  

So yes, I think overall what I hope to achieve in my work is encouraging a sense of curiosity as well as critical reflection and connection to the ideas and story conveyed. 

We hear you often experiment with found objects and upcycled materials, what made you decide to head down this path? 
I’ve long held environmental concerns about the amount of waste we produce living in such a consumer‐driven society; and I guess growing up in a family where money was tight and with three younger siblings I was encouraged to be resourceful with the things we had.  
I also love the challenge of using reclaimed materials in my work and seeing how I can best bring different elements together. Knowing how much textile waste scarily ends up in landfill each year further encourages me to utilise what I already have at hand too. For example, the latest series of collage works I’ve completed are constructed from pages of a property guide, three discarded tea towels I found in a Salvos bin, the foil from a couple of yoghurt containers and leftover thread from a previous project. I dare say only on closer inspection would the viewer be able to identify the actual materials I’ve used in these works. And so, I guess it comes back again to that sense of curiosity that working with found and upcycled materials can also help further encourage in the viewer that I also like.

What does Ballarat as a UNESCO Creative City of Crafts and Folk Art mean to you? 
It’s an opportunity to celebrate the fabulous local artists and craftspeople in this amazing town. 

Despite its smaller size compared to Melbourne, Ballarat sure does pack a punch when it comes to its arts scene!  

When I scroll through my Insta feed and check out local exhibitions, I’m continually blown away by the incredible individual and collective artistic endeavours of fellow artists and crafts folk here in Ballarat. Combined with the recent news of the establishment of the Centre for Rare Arts & Forgotten Trades at Sovereign Hill, I see Ballarat’s appointment as a UNESCO City of Craft and Folk Art providing an opportunity to not only showcase, but help preserve local traditional arts and crafts skills. 

For those interested in textiles, what piece of advice do you have for them? 
In terms of appreciating textile art, if you haven’t already, be sure to visit the Textile Arts Museum of Australia (TAMA) in Ararat. The variety of works in their collection is amazing and I love their support of inspiring, innovative and provocative Australian textile artists, including Sera Waters, Hannah Gartside and Paul Yore. I still can’t quite believe we have our very own textiles gallery just an hour down the road!  
A couple of times each year, I head up to see their latest exhibition, either as a solo endeavour or with a fellow textiles‐loving mate.
For those on social media, I’d also recommend checking out the feeds of Australian textile artists Ema Shin, Kate Just, Ilka White and Raquel Ormella, in addition to those listed above and throughout this article. 

In terms of anyone interested in making textiles, it can certainly be intimidating picking up a set of knitting needles or threading a sewing machine for the first time. My advice is don’t let that hold you back. My first real attempt at hand embroidery was last year in contributing a piece of work as part of a craftivist project led by fellow Tenfold Textile Collective member Tara Glastonbury. After many (and I mean many!) practice attempts, I got better and better. Were it not for the confidence I developed from completing that piece, I’m not sure whether my current “In Solidarity” artwork would’ve ever happened. 
Confidence definitely breeds confidence! I’d also recommend attending some short courses (especially in person if you can) as a means of not only developing new skills but connecting with other people who also have an interest in textiles. 

What does your next 12 months look like?  
As co‐founder of a textiles collective – Tenfold Textile Collective – with a group of women whom I studied with five years ago, our aim is to exhibit at least once a year as a means of challenging our own individual textiles practice and to elevate contemporary textile art and design here in Australia. 

There’s a certain magic in exhibiting with my fellow Tenfold members and I love the diversity of mediums that we’re able to showcase: whereas I tend to identify as a stitch, concept, collage and embroidery textile artist, other members are very much drawn to weave, knit, quilting, print and natural dyeing.  
Apart from gearing up for another exhibition next year, I’ve got another series of collage works I plan to display as well as completing my own arts residency in Dubbo, NSW, the place I was born and which I’ve had a strong yearning of late to revisit. 

I’ve also got a craftivist workshop coming up as part of this year’s Ballarat Heritage Festival which is a collaboration between the Art Gallery of Ballarat and the Ballarat Apron Festival with my friend Shaz McDonough and artist Kait James.

And to wrap up, what’s Ballarat best kept secret?  
Currently my partner and I live in Mount Pleasant with a beautiful dog called Nana Jett. I’ve come to really enjoy walking along the Yarrowee Creek Trail – it’s so quiet and such a change from the busy “main street” of Barkly Street.  
In terms of my favourite cafes, I typically bounce between L’Espresso on Sturt Street and Drive on the corner of Grant and Barkly Streets. The staff at both are super welcoming and the food and coffee options on offer are delicious! Given how busy these places can get, I wouldn’t by any means call them Ballarat’s best kept secrets – just places I totally recommend for people to visit when they’re in town. 

Across Victoria’s Midwest, we acknowledge that we travel across the ancient landscapes of many First Peoples communities.

These lands have been nurtured and cared for over tens of thousands of years and we respect the work of Traditional Custodians for their ongoing care and protection.

We recognise the past injustices against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this country. As our knowledge grows, we hope that we can learn from their resilience and creativity that has guided them for over 60,000 years.

As we invite people to visit and explore Victoria’s Midwest, we ask that alongside us, you also grow to respect the stories, living culture and connection to Country of the Ancestors and Elders of our First Peoples.